Terrifying portrait of a planet on the brink

DISASTER movie or movie disaster? Adam McKay’s dark sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up certainly got a tough ride from the critics.

Hollywood A-listers don’t come with any better environmental credentials that Leonardo DiCaprio. (It’s more than 20 years since he launched a foundation dedicated to ensuring the future health and well-being of Earth’s inhabitants.)

COLLISION COURSE: Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

But even with Leo leading an all-star line-up that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Ariana Grande, the disturbing climate change allegory centred around a massive comet about to destroy human civilisation was initially written off by many reviewers as laboured slapstick or self-reverential twaddle.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s hard to create great satire in an age when real life has already exposed us to a distorted dystopia peopled by political clowns and charlatans who behave like comic-book villains.

Let’s face it, after four years of a Trump presidency, what new is there to say about incompetence or disingenuity by those in high office?

EYES ON THE POLLS: Meryl Streep as the American president PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

As the narcissistic President Orlean, Meryl Streep does her best to give POTUS a fresh dynamic, aided and abetted by Jonah Hill as her doting, sociopathic son and chief of staff.

Predictably, the pair meet news of the looming disaster with distracted indifference, more concerned about polling numbers in the upcoming primaries than in averting imminent extermination.

DOTING SON: Jonah Hill as Meryl Streep’s chief of staff PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

But for anyone weaned on The Thick Of It and In The Loop, jokes about self-serving politicians feel too depressingly real nowadays to make us laugh quite so heartily about their foibles as we once did.

The same is true of McKay’s other targets. From creepy billionaire tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to the vacuous banter-driven hosts of fictional breakfast show The Daily Rip, his larger-than-life caricatures are scarily and depressingly recognisable.

TECH WIZARD: Mark Rylance as sinister CEO Peter Isherwell PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

The underlying theme, of course, is that when DiCaprio and Lawrence – as nervous, nerdy Michigan astronomer Dr Randall Mindy and his smart, punkish grad student Kate Dibiasky (who gets ALL the best lines) – try to warn humanity about the looming apocalypse, no one will take their claims seriously.

Writer, director and producer Mackay wants us to share his horror that we live in a society which persistently sidelines the reality of the climate crisis, using savage humour as his principal weapon.

But if some critics found his vision unbearably smug, crass or cynical, that didn’t stop TV audiences making it the third most-watched Netflix film in the company’s history, prompting many commentators to take a fresh look at his offering.

They found scientists reacting positively to the movie, finding it only too easy to relate to Mindy and Dibiasky’s mounting incredulity at society’s terrifying non-response to the impending destruction.

The denialism also struck a chord with environmental activists, who saw their own struggles reflected in the pair’s growing despair that society is more interested in a pop star’s failed relationship than the future of the planet.

The dark humour takes no prisoners, though. Capitalist greed, political expediency and media idiocracy are all in the firing line, along with the polarising nature of social media in a clickbait-driven society anaesthetised into apathy and indifference.

VACUOUS EXCHANGE: Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

This is a world of short attention spans, cruel memes and knee-jerk hashtags which feels very 2022, in which the frustrated audience wants someone to listen to Mindy’s desperate scream that “We’re all going to die”.

So how come some critics found it trite and self-satisfied, trivialising the climate crisis “from a position of lofty superiority” rather than providing searing socio-political insights, while others felt it offered a “one-of-a-kind experience”?

Derivative, meandering, condescending, unfunny and forgettable, or astute, caustic, clever and fast-paced?

DIVIDED SOCIETY: Don’t Look Up enraged some critics PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, it’s brash, absurd, ferocious and infuriating, but there’s some great acting, enormous enthusiasm and some great one-liners, especially from Dibiasky: “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying. And unsettling.”

It’s been slated as a cosmic disaster, a primal scream, an A-list bomb of a movie. Yet a dozen prominent publications have also run contrary think pieces exploring just why the critics gave McKay such a rough ride.

Could the jaded hacks so eager to detect the whiff of condescension in McKay’s boisterous attack actually be in danger of straying into the line of fire themselves? As environmental activist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian: “No wonder journalists have slated it…it’s about them.”

FLIGHT OF FANCY: the astronomers head to Washington PICTURE: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Perhaps at the end of the day the precise artistic merits of McKay’s film don’t matter quite as much as the critics would have us believe.

He’s got us talking, arguing and debating about the elephant in the room, climate change. And that surely can’t be such a bad thing.

Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix in December 2021.

Garden guards its timeless secrets

GENERATIONS of children have been entranced by the story of The Secret Garden, as told by the British-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett more than a century ago.

But as we in the UK await the delayed release of a new film version starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters, it might well be a good time to revisit the 1993 version of the movie – another all-star offering telling the timeless story of an orphaned girl sent to live in a gloomy, forbidding estate in Yorkshire.

child explores secret garden

In the new retelling, Dixie Egerickx plays Mary Lennox, the spoilt daughter of neglectful parents orphaned in India – although the action has been moved forward from the early years of the century to 1947.

But as the 2020 version goes on release in America ahead of its debut here, the 1993 offering has Kate Maberly in the starring role as the disgruntled Mary, left to roam the empty corridors of Misselthwaite Manor, where her reclusive uncle has never recovered from his wife’s untimely death.

children explore secret garden

The critics generally loved the 90s version, praising it for honouring its classic source material with a “well-acted, beautifully filmed adaptation that doesn’t shy from its story’s darker themes”.

After her long sea journey the prickly, repressed Mary is met with a mixture of disdain and disapproval by Mrs Medlock (Maggie Smith), who manages the manor in the absence of her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (John Lynch), who seems to be perpetually roaming the world in an attempt to forget the heartbreaking death of his young bride.

There is little for the petulant and unhappy 10-year-old to do but explore and she soon begins to stumble on some of the secrets of Misselthwaite Manor, allowing her to slowly discover for the first time in her life what true friendship means.

Like all great stories for children, the powerful truths which lurk beneath the surface of the narrative allows younger audiences to learn something about the nature of life, and Agnieszka Holland’s version is bolstered by an extraordinary award-winning musical score by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner.

children explore secret garden

To some modern eyes the 1993 version may feel a little slow and dated, notable for its lack of special effects. But the late Roger Ebert, the Pullitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, it was a work of “beauty, poetry and deep mystery, and watching it is like entering for a time into a closed world where one’s destiny may be discovered”.

American critics seem divided about how well the 2020 film shapes up in comparison, though its credentials are second to none.

This time Colin Firth plays the heartsore uncle, haunted by grief and forcing his son to lead the life of an invalid because of his misguided sense of overprotectiveness. With little dialogue and only a handful of scenes, Firth still manages to convey the profound nature of the uncle’s grief , we hear.

But if the New York Tiimes found this version charming and some audiences thought it “magical”, other critics have worried that in its visual overkill it lacks the “atmospheric poetry” of its predecessor, with director Marc Munden and scriptwriter Jack Thorne somehow sapping the story of its magic by over-reliance on CGI.

child explores secret garden

British audiences get to find out for themselves in October, so in the meantime, why not step back in time to an unsung gem from the year everyone remembers for Jurassic Park?

This is a tale about grief, and how damaged wounded individuals can manage to claw their way beack to life with the right tending and care. It was something Frances Hodgson Burnett knew about only too well: she had seen her elder son die of consumption 20 years before she wrote the book, and she sank into a deep depression as a result.

It was not to be greatly lauded during her lifetime – it was only later that it began to be appreciated as a classic of children’s literature and increasingly cited as one of the best and best-loved children’s books of the 20th century.

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Maureen Lee Lenker suggests the new version misses the point: “Like the garden at its heart, The Secret Garden has always found its beauty in its quietude, a small story of hearts broken and healed through nature, attentive care, and true connection. But this adaptation doesn’t understand that, instead drowning the film in showy set pieces and magical realism rather than understanding the inherent magic in all things. They should’ve never underestimated the peace that can be found in simplicity and quiet.”

Right or wrong, there could hardly be a better reason for revisiting the Agnieszka Holland version – or even re-reading the original book. That way, we will all be better prepared to judge for ourselves if the latest version really makes the grade when it finally reaches these shores.

Damon dreams of a brighter future

IF YOU see one film in 2020, make sure you track down a screening of 2040, an inspiring 2019 Australian drama-documentary directed by and starring film-maker dad Damon Gameau.

Alarming and disarming in equal measure, the film takes the form of a poignant letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter Velvet re-imagining how the effects of climate change could be reversed over the next two decades through the creative use of technologies that already exist.

From community-based solar power grids to progressive farming ideas and underwater seaweed beds, the environmentalist offers an upbeat explanation of ways in which workable “regenerative” community projects could help rescue us from the unthinkable alternative.

Set against a backdrop of predictably cutesy soundbites from children around the world talking about the sort of future they want, the film harnesses sophisticated visual effects and clever dramatisation to intersperse interviews with key experts in the climate change discourse in a way that successfully manages to avoid it becoming a montage of talking heads, even if some critics found the offbeat dad jokes and quirky CGI a little too much to handle.

Amid the children’s more outlandish visions of rocket boots and a round-the-clock National Hot Dog Day are some trenchant reminders of the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of the young, and their high hopes for a kinder, cleaner and greener planet are enough to reduce some of the audience to tears.

Yes, there’s scope to criticse the documentary for its “easygoing can-do approach in which there is no great emphasis on sacrifice and not even any obvious sense of emergency”, but although The Guardian’s reviewer only awarded three stars when the film was launched here in November, there was also a recognition of Gameau’s intrinsic likability and the underlying practicality of his approach.

Perhaps more significant is the success with which he moves the rhetoric away from righteous anger and confrontation. Basically he recognises there’s enough eco-anxiety around already and more pessimistic premonitions of doom simply leave us wringing our hands and hiding our heads under the covers.

Yes, the elephant in the room is the backdrop of melting ice sheets and increasing weather abnormalities, but rather than wallowing in fear and despair, Gameau focuses on how local communities in Bangladesh are already harnessing solar power to create micro-grids of electricity, how new farming models can sequester carbon and how new approaches to the cultivation of seaweed could help to promote marine biodiversity.

On his travels he also begins to realise how the education of a new generation of women and an accompanying reduction in population growth could be the single biggest key to success.

The visual letter cleverly juxtaposes visions of how Velvet’s life might have changed in two decades’ time if we make some inspired choices now with subtly understated reminders of the bleak and downright terrifying alternative.

This makes the film an ideal starting point for classroom and community discussions, because we’d all frankly prefer to live in Gameau’s world of green cities, driverless cars and better public transport than consider the prospect of how barren soils and oceans, coupled with rising sea levels and extreme weather, could create a hell on earth and force millions of migrants on the move.

Peopling his film with fellow optimists also allows us to recognise what we too can do to help a new generation of Velvets cope with the realities of modern life. Just as Gameau’s four-year-old must leave her safe bubble of childhood innocence, we also need to reject the blissful ignorance of climate inaction and embrace the opportunity to do our bit for the planet.

As he says, it is time to leave the bubble. And he wants to do that in a way which sounds the fire alarm but shows people where the exits are.

The film doesn’t resort to snide attacks or scapegoating, but there’s no shrinking from harsh realities either, of how our current paralysis may be stoked by a negative press which does not discuss solutions to climate change and a fossil fuel industry hell-bent on protecting its commercial interests at any price.

But while the film touches on the immense wealth and power wielded by vested interests to quell political action, it’s significant that some of the solutions are coming from the poorest people in the world whose lives and livelihoods are most immediately affected by intense weather events and rising sea levels.

It also means that our hopes for an optimistic future do not just rest of the innocent naivety of the young, but a groundswell of ordinary people: academics, campaigners, farmers and engineers who are already starting to create a new vision, pushing against the political tide.

Gameau urges us to join the regeneration revolution, and in the first six months after the film’s launch a surprising amount has been achieved.

Not all audiences may feel the documentary manages to occupy the “sweet spot between overexcited hopefulness and grounded realism”, but it does succeed in making a difficult subject eminently digestible for a universal audience.

UK screenings have been organised by environmental protest groups and other campaigners. Keep an eye out for a chance to see Gameau’s eccentric, engaging and essential contribution to the climate change debate at a local venue.

Big ideas get lost in a small world

THERE’S so much about Alexander Payne’s movie Downsizing (15) that doesn’t quite work that it’s easy to overlook some of the many endearing facets of his ambitious 2017 sci-fi satire.

For a start, it’s not every day you get a film brave enough to play to audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability, but these aren’t subjects ideally suited to comedy so perhaps it’s no surprise that this unlikely fantasy never seems entirely clear what it is trying to achieve.

downsizing-matt-damon-paramount

It’s a dilemma which clearly confused the writer responsible for the DVD sleeve, because if Downsizing is anything it’s certainly not “hilarious” in any laugh-out-loud way – unless you find a Vietnamese refugee speaking in pidgin English side-splittingly funny, that is.

Yes, there are some witty concepts, intriguing characters and entertaining dialogue, but despite the thoughtful and expansive premise, the film tends to fall between all the available stools – neither arthouse nor mainstream and not scoring a hit with the critics or at the box office, despite the familiar names on the cast list.

By its nature satire tends to cause discomfort and unease and yet there are plenty of life-affirming moments in Downsizing, which perhaps ensures that as dystopias go, this isn’t a journey that leaves us too emotionally exhausted.

Perhaps that’s the central problem – it’s hard to stay upbeat in the face of imminent apocalypse and there are times when we are not sure whether to laugh or cry about the whole experience.

The initial premise is original enough (although it’s worth remembering that Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726). Here the twist is that visionary Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) has uncovered a shrinking formula which provides a potential solution to the world’s population woes.

This raises the prospect that miniaturised people will consume only a fraction of the world’s resources but the utopian project is soon hijacked by American capitalism, paving the way for an explosion of tiny dome-covered communities boasting a lifestyle of ease and opulence marketed with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes the average car salesman look like a rank amateur.

The fundamentally sound qualities of central everyman figure Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) are somewhat offset by his beigeness. But it’s easy to see how our unfulfilled hero might be tempted by the prospect of upward mobility in micro-suburbia, and his new life as someone five inches tall provides plenty of scope for inventive satire as it becomes only too clear that life in the diminutive world of Leisureland is a literal microcosm of the big bad world outside.

There are plenty of surprises awaiting Paul when he starts to scratch the surface of the miniature community, starting with the potentially alluring lifestyle of his new neighbour, the larger-than-life Serb black marketeer Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz.

But if the disarmingly roguish Dusan seems cartoonish, how are we supposed to react to his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese illegal immigrant who was shrunk against her will while imprisoned as a dissident.

In some ways it’s only Hong Chau’s bravura performance that enables her to overcome the extraordinary list of clichés and stereotypes she has been saddled with, her staccato broken English troubling more politically correct audiences, although most were won over by her irrepressible energy and Payne assures us she was created and brought to life with a lot of tenderness.

Paul manages to resist the hedonistic attractions of party boy Dusan’s existence and is drawn instead into the darker world of Ngoc Lan’s life in the dirt-poor ghetto where she lives outside Leisureland’s walls.

So far, so good – after all, Payne has an excellent track record in exploring the anguish of humdrum middle-aged American men and the special effects are used cleverly to immerse us in the small world in such a way that the absurdist humour never allows us to become distracted by hi-tech gimmickry.

But if it’s a pleasant change to exchange Bond-style supermen for a “real” hero, Damon is sometimes not the most entertaining of companions and his relationship with Ngoc Lan feels a little cartoonish at times too as he blankly takes in the harsh realities of life for the disabled activist who has become part of Leisureland’s exploited underclass.

On the one hand we are being bombarded with bold reminders of humankind’s fundamental flaws, but many of the avenues are left unexplored and questions unanswered, despite the film feeling a little rambling and overlong.

Love may conquer all, but it may well do so in a somewhat bland and suburban way, despite the off-stage collapse of the world as we know it.

And if it feels like a very fitting message for our times to explore the lengths people will go to escape global overcrowding and the dangers of climate change, Damon is sometimes less than compelling company on the journey to enlightment and a little too passive to win our hearts, never mind the sharp-voiced and sharper-brained Ngoc Lan’s.

We understand the need to escape from the prison of materialism, and the spectre of a new kind of migration crisis lends a sense of urgency to the closing third of the film, but the loose ends rankle and ultimately Paul’s road to redemption feels a little too muddled to leave audiences feeling truly moved.

Downsizing gives us pause for thought and raises some intriguing questions about the world we live in, but never quite becomes the miniature masterpiece Payne’s fans might have hoped for.